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PC leadership candidate calls for longer look at Northern Pulp's effluent plan

PC MLA and leadership candidate Tim Houston sent a letter to the provincial environment minister in which he said without a Class 2 environmental assessment, the government will not gain the public's trust. (CBC)

Another Pictou County MLA is raising concerns about Northern Pulp's proposal to discharge treated effluent from the mill directly into the Northumberland Strait.

This week, Tim Houston, the MLA for Pictou East and a leadership candidate for the Progressive Conservatives, asked the Stephen McNeil government to subject the project to a much lengthier environmental review.

"I respectfully ask you to raise the bar on the environmental assessment process and get three independent experts to inform yourself and the community on the alternatives that can be considered," Houston said in a Jan. 29 letter to Environment Minister Iain Rankin obtained by CBC News.

He is not the only local Tory with reservations.

'I will never, ever endorse a pipe going out into the strait'

Fellow Pictou County MLA — and interim PC Leader — Karla MacFarlane went much further in a Nov. 5 closed-door meeting with dozens of local fishermen. CBC News has obtained a cellphone video of the event between the fishermen, MacFarlane, Rankin and Central Nova MP Sean Fraser.

PC MLA said at a closed-door meeting that she would never endorse a pipe that would discharge effluent into the Northumberland Strait. (Karla MacFarlane/Facebook)

"It can be all done on land. And I think when you know better, you do better, and I will never, ever endorse a pipe going out into the strait," MacFarlane told the fishermen, earning a round of applause.

Fishermen have launched an aggressive campaign against the proposal, claiming direct discharge of treated effluent poses a danger to their livelihoods.

Longer review can take up to 275 days

In his letter to Rankin, Houston said the proposed wastewater facility should undergo a Class 2 environmental assessment — a review that can take up to 275 days, compared with the 50-day review period, with 30 days set aside for public comment under the Class 1 assessment, which is currently scheduled.

The clock starts when the mill formally registers the project for government scrutiny, which is expected in late spring or early summer.

The province said it opted for the faster Class 1 assessment after an extensive review of the company's plans to date. In the past the minister justified the decision to apply a Class 1 assessment on the grounds the project was a modification to an existing undertaking.

"Given its history, and the complexity of the issues, it would be unrealistic to expect government to gain the public trust in its decision without a comprehensive Class 2 environmental assessment and independent expert opinion," Houston wrote.

In 2015, the province's Liberal government promised to close the Boat Harbour effluent treatment facility in Pictou County by January 2020, and eventually transform the filthy waterway into a clean, tidal estuary. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Houston said a Class 2 review is needed to assure the public the project has been thoroughly reviewed.

"We can't be perceived as cutting corners on this," he told CBC News.

"When it comes to the environment, you have to make sure the right things and the right assessments are being done."

Pictou County council and P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan have also called on the McNeil government to subject the project to a Class 2 assessment.

Houston also wants experts to consider the possibility of a "closed-loop" system on land with no discharge into the strait.

Deadline to close existing facility looms

The new waste treatment facility for the mill is needed to meet a 2020 provincial government deadline to close the current effluent system at Boat Harbour next to the Pictou Landing First Nation.

Given that construction is still months away with no regulatory approval, the 2020 deadline was already a challenge under a shorter environmental assessment.

Northern Pulp says it's carrying out a rigorous scientific study of the project. (CBC)

The company has never guaranteed it can meet that deadline, only that it will take "any and all measures."

A lengthier review would make meeting the deadline very unlikely.

Environment minister, company respond

Rankin defended the Class 1 assessment in a statement to CBC News.

"I have received MLA Houston's letter, and appreciate the concerns that he has raised," he said. "Like Mr. Houston, I believe this decision must be based on science and the best available evidence. Our existing environmental assessment process will ensure both of those objectives are met."

Northern Pulp was copied on Houston's letter.

Company spokesperson Kathy Cloutier said in a statement Northern Pulp is carrying out a rigorous scientific study of its project and engaging with First Nations groups, the community and stakeholders.

"While these are significant steps not specifically required i​n a Class 1 project, prior to registration of the project, it is our responsibility to demonstrate to NS Environment that we are seeking input and addressing concerns as much as possible," said Cloutier.

"To ensure transparency and to offer increased engagement with the community, Northern Pulp as a company feels this​ is necessary and decided from the onset of this process to do so."

Houston credited Northern Pulp for doing many of the steps of a Class 2 review.

PC support for mill

John Lohr, a PC leadership candidate and the MLA for Kings North, lashed out at P.E.I.'s premier last month when MacLauchlan publicly called on Stephen McNeil to put in place the lengthier Class 2 assessment.

"This political interference would put the entire project in jeopardy, because it would likely push construction of the new facility past the 2020 deadline," said Lohr in a statement.

"If the P.E.I. premier is allowed to dictate environmental policy in Nova Scotia, then I call upon Premier McNeil to at least extend his unilateral deadline [to close Boat Harbour]."

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